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Hunting for a Home

Egyptian Tales – Episode 4

This Episode fills in some background context for episodes to come.

Warning, this episode contains language that may offend some readers.

Briefly, here’s the setup…In the early 1990s Rick was very successfully employed as interim CEO of an Australian garment manufacturing business that was losing six million dollars a year. In twelve months with Rick at the helm, it was ‘back in the black’. That company was owned by two older Jewish men who also owned a very much larger textile manufacturing company. Having been in the textile industry most of his working life, it was perhaps inevitable that Rick would find himself both studying and working with many Jewish people.

Iconic Syndey Harbour Bridge.

Rick playing at being Captain Bligh on a replica of the Bounty on Sydney Harbour. A portent perhaps?

Working for those two Australian Textile magnates, was another company owned by an Israeli named Svi. It provided computer logistics for manufacturing businesses. Rick had developed a good working relationship with Svi to construct a computer system that played a crucial role in that Australian rescue project. Rick’s accountant in that role as interim CEO was a forthright Australian named Gavin.

Fast forward to 1998 when Svi’s company was negotiating to put a team together to fix the mounting problems in the aforementioned Egyptian company. When Svi asked Gavin, “Who do we know who could run this team?” Gavin suggested Rick.
“Yes, yes,” said Svi, He is the man! Ring him.”

In Egypt, Rick’s ‘team’ was to consist of programmers, accountants and knitting, dyeing and cutting specialists, who, apart from Old Rick and Young Rick (who was Australian) would come to do specific jobs for various periods of time. The two Ricks were to be there full time. Clearly, they needed a base big enough to house this moving assortment of ex-pats and one wife, namely me.

The Egyptian business’s owner, Mr Omah, had a friend from school days who was in charge of finding flats for the several ex-pats the factory employed. Now, five hundred of the factory’s male staff had the popular first name, Mohammad. To distinguish them the ex-pats addressed those they interacted with by both first and surnames. However, there were a few members of staff (whether named Mohammad or not) who for various reasons, were given nicknames chosen for their most notable and usually annoying, personality foibles. The man who was charged with finding a suitable dwelling place for Rick’s team spoke perfect English. Following an incident involving a young woman he was quickly dubbed El Sleeze. In addition, this man had a tendency to subvert every job he was given to his own gain with no apparent regard to the service he was supposed to be providing.
He irritated Gavin so much that one day the Australian was heard to say, “Mohammad, I can always tell when you’re lying”.
“How?” Mohammad demanded to know.
“Your lips move.”

With both Rick and Gavin in attendance, Omar explained to Mohammad in detail, what was needed for their accommodation. Yes, he understood exactly, Mohammad told them and yes, he had a couple of places in mind.
“Good”, said Rick. “Well, I’m busy at work. You’re not to accept anything that I don’t approve of but I’ll come to look at anything that meets this criteria.” He handed over a piece of paper with all requirements listed including a certain number of bedrooms, a swimming pool, and so on.

The pool was at Svi’s insistence. Svi, being, as Rick puts it, like the Egyptians also a ‘Son of Abraham’, was well aware of the importance of status in this highly stratified society where perceived status commands not only respect but more importantly, obedience and the assumption of one’s ‘value’.
So, this particular Mohammad, charged with finding suitable accommodation for the incoming team, had Rick’s list of criteria. From here on, I shall let Rick take up much of this tale . . .

“So, Mohammed comes back to me with, “I’ve got a place I’d like you to come to this afternoon. Now I’ve arranged with the owner to be there at 3.00 o’clock.”
I said, “Well I don’t want to go at 3.00 o’clock.
“But I’ve arranged it.”
“I don’t care what you have arranged, I’m not driving all the way to a meeting that’ll take say, half an hour, so I’ve got to leave here at just after 2.00, have the meeting at 3.00. 3.30 its all finished. It’s too late to drive back to work and start work again before I leave again so that’s stuffed up a whole afternoon. I’m not prepared to do that. Tell him the earliest I will meet him is at 5.00 o’clock.”
“Oh, that’s too late.”
“Ring him.”
Mohammad comes back with, “He could do 4 o’clock.”
Now, I don’t believe this at all. I believe this is Mohammed trying to teach me a lesson. So when we got there and found that it was a two bedroom place… It did have a pool, I went ape-shit. He then justified it on the basis that there were only two of us needing the accommodation. (The two Ricks.)
“And your wife is coming, so that will be good for this sized house.”
I said, “Do you have that piece of paper I gave you?”
“Yes.”
“Show me.” He produces the paper.
“How many bedrooms does it say? Has this house got that many bedrooms? Don’t waste my f***ing time!”
So that was that.

“What we saw from then on would be three bedrooms and no swimming pool or four bedrooms and disgusting leaks, plaster peeling off inside, grease all over the floor and no pool, and so on and so forth. Of course I’m getting pretty pissed off over this and I make it pretty obvious to Omar that I’m pissed off. Everybody told me that this would all be done quickly and I’m wasting my time and Omar’s money going to see places that patently don’t meet the criteria.
Omar was getting pissed off too because I was saying ‘No’ all the time and he’d been given the whisper that I’m too fussy. “He’s the sort of guy you’ll never make happy”, etc etc. When I gathered this, I explained to him what had happened with each one – this, this one -this one.”
I said, “Now, you explained to Mohammad how many bedrooms we need. Get him up here!”
“No it’s al…”
“Get him up here!”
So Mohammad came up.
Omar asked him, “Did you understand this?”
“Yes.”
“Good.”
I said, “How many bedrooms did that one have? Did this one have a pool? Did that one have a pool? Would you live in that one? Would you keep your f***ing dog in that place?”
“No.”
“Right, Omar, this is what he’s showing me.”
Aware that Omar might be thinking I just wanted to stay where I was in a hotel in Alexandria, I decided to put that notion to bed.
“I don’t want to live in the hotel because I don’t get home ’til some time in the evening. The earliest I’ve got there is about 7.30 – 8 o’clock and often I don’t get back ’til 10 o’clock at night! The bloody pool’s closed and I’ve got to be up and at ‘em in the morning again. I’d rather be living out on the north coast when I can be home at a decent hour and there, as you said, I can go for a swim at the beach and so on and so on.”

So then Omar’s wife, Madam T, gets involved and I think she reamed Mohammed out. She went and had a look at a couple of the places that I’d turned down and she was pretty angry.
Then she said to me, “Rick, one of them looked very nice.”
I said, “Which one?”
She said, “The one in such and such a street.”
I said, “I remember the one. It looks beautiful, doesn’t it? That’s the one with the nice tree out the front and all that? Yeah, terrific.”
She said “That looked really nice.”
I said “Yeah, it’s got two bedrooms.”
“What!”
I said, “It’s got two bedrooms.”
“Oh,” She said, “the man’s a fool.”
I said, “Matter for you if you pay the fool’s wages but he’s wasting my time!”

The pool that never saw a drop of water, unless it rained.

“So I’m desperate by this stage and in desperation, the villa that we ended up with was by far and away the best choice. It was the only one that met the criteria and I suspect it came about with a bit of help from Madam T. It even had a pool and ‘Yes, yes’ the agent said, the pool would be fixed. There’s just a problem with the pump.

I said, “Righto, if it’s just the pump that’s easy fixed. Fill it with water now,” because I wanted to see if it leaked. “Fill it with water now and you can get the pump fixed and that’ll catch up the cleaning cycle.”
Well, I think there was a water restriction or the pipe was broken, whatever. Anyway, it never happened and of course once we’d paid the deposit and we were in, then ‘You go whistle Dixie’. So, frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t care because it was 100, 150 meters walk to the beach and I’d rather swim in the sea than in a pool that everybody pisses in. So, that was that. We were ready to move into the villa.”

Almost.

The villa consisted of three apartments, one on each floor, each with a kitchen. We only had access to the kitchen on the ground floor. The other two were stuffed with left over possessions of the owners. Again, I shall let Rick tell this part of the tale…

“The downstairs kitchen, was filthy. Filthy. To get the fridge out of the recess took two fingers. You just pushed it with two fingers and the trick was to stop it before it slid into the wall on the other side because it just slid around the kitchen on the greasy floor. There was no extractor fan, I’m guessing and if there was, (and you might find this hard to believe) it didn’t work. It was disgusting.
So I said, “That will have to be cleaned up!”
Madam T said, “I’ll come and have a look, as if to say, “I will decide if it has to be cleaned up”.
Well she came, had a look and said, “It has to be cleaned up.”
So she arrived with the staff from her own villa and the next time I came there, and I give her full marks for this, there she is in her working clobber with her rubber gauntlets up to her elbows, on her knees, scrubbing the floor and the walls alongside the maids. She worked like a navvy. My apologies to my Irish ancestors who were navvies.”

Earlier in this missive, I mentioned the 1952 revolution in Egypt. What happened during and as a consequence of that revolution, has a bearing on some aspects of this trail of houses with poor upkeep and absence of cleanliness. A couple of years later, during our second sojourn in Egypt, Rick was urged to read a book by Egyptian writer, Galal Amin, entitled “Whatever Happened to the Egyptians.” It answered many an ex-pat’s puzzlement over much of what we had experienced in the Alexandria area. The book’s back cover says, “This delightful and informative book examines the underlying causes of some of the more disturbing social, political, economic and cultural phenomena that characterize Egyptian society in the 1990’s.”

The thrust of the 1952 revolution was to throw out not just the British but the European dominance in Egypt in general. Jews, as elsewhere, were particularly targeted but not only them. We met people in their seventies who had returned to Egypt after being evicted or leaving of their own accord during the revolution. They tended to be upper class people who had money and consequently, prior to the revolution, had a degree of privilege and influence. The consequent breakdown of the pre-revolution class system and an exponential population growth opened opportunities for entrepreneurial types to set up businesses and join a new, fast growing ‘middle class’. They were suddenly able to seize opportunities hitherto not available to them and they became the drivers behind and occupiers of the many new holiday apartments and large villas, such as the one we found ourselves in. It’s a sad fact that ‘class’ is not simply a measure of wealth but also of standards of conduct and living habits. As Henry Higgins found out, one does not take a street seller and transform her completely into a lady. Reading Galal Amin’s prize-winning book helped us make better sense of why some of these potentially beautiful holiday homes were treated so poorly by this particular sector of society. Fortunately, we also met many delightful Egyptians who lived in clean, pleasant homes and who conducted themselves with dignity and ‘class’, whatever that means.

By the time he came to move into the villa, having been amidst this culture for some months, Rick was weIl aware of the need to be seen to be as high up the totem pole as possible or neither he nor his team would get the respect, loyalty or service at work that they needed to succeed. So he bagged the top apartment, which befitted his own status⎯a basis for choice that felt odd for us more egalitarian Kiwis. I was grateful, as it was very pleasant up there at the top of the villa; light, bright and clean and it opened out onto a roof patio. The adjoining lounge was a great place for me to write or meditate. So, the villa was good and Rick was looking forward to lounging in the Mediterranean sun after work.
I get the impression that didn’t happen often. When I arrived in November, summer had given way to the shorter days of winter. Friday was the only day the men had off. Exhausted, Rick usually needed a long sleep-in before the sermon was broadcast from the mosque across the street.

So began life at the villa, with an assortment of interesting characters; Australians, Israelis, Egyptians, and even an Italian. There were dramas and sometimes strange happenings. Watch this space…

As for El Sleeze, a few years later, returning after a holiday break, Rick noticed his absence and asked where he was.
Omar said, “I fired him.”
“What? You fired him?” Knowing the tangled web of relationships Omar felt obliged to honour, this news came as a shock.
“Why?” asked Rick.
“He was a thief. Even as a child, he was just a thief!”

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